The history behind opposition to Obama’s speech to students

The federal role in schools is strictly limited. Ronald Reagan wanted to abolish the Department of Education.

Genevieve Cocco/Sipa Press/NEWSCOM/FILE
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education building in Washington, DC.

Why the uproar over President Obama’s plan to deliver a televised back-to-school speech to US students? Part of the opposition surely is due to political opposition to Obama himself. But there is another, deeper factor that also may be at work: the historic conservative antipathy in the US to a federal role in education.

Look at it this way: Many people in Texas and Florida (and other conservative states and areas) might well object to anybody from Washington addressing their kids about educational duties, president or no.

Remember, Ronald Reagan promised to abolish the Department of Education after he was elected in 1980. It was the Democratic-controlled Congress that prevented him from doing so.

President George H. W. Bush did not press this issue. As has been widely noted, he took part in a teleconference with school children in which he urged them to work hard, do their homework, and study math and science.

But in 1996, GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole promised to “cut out” the DoE and save money. The ’96 Republican presidential platform said this: “The federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula . . . That is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end federal meddling in our schools, and promote family choice at all levels of learning”.

Given the tumultuous events of his presidency, it is easy to forget that George Bush in 2000 was elected as something of a school reformer, based on his success in improving test scores in Texas. In that sense he and his father were a break from post-Barry Goldwater GOP attitudes.

Against this background, it is easy to see why some places in the US might object to, not just a presidential speech, but a presidential speech that is being promoted with curriculum development ideas from the Education Department.

Historically, the federal role in education is strictly limited in the US, the requirements of the “No Child Left Behind” act notwithstanding. At the elementary and secondary level, fully 92 percent of all money comes from state, local, and private funds, according to the DoE’s own figures.

Obama administration officials, for their part, say they are surprised by the heat generated by a speech the first announced weeks ago.

“I think we’ve reached a little bit of the silly season when the president of the United States can’t tell kids in school to study hard and stay in school,” presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday. “I think both political parties agree that the dropout rate is something that threatens our long-term economic success.”


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